Using Alternative History to Think Through Current and Future Problems


Mar 1, 2024

Stereograph image of the Battle of Gettysburg - Engagement in the Peach Orchard, public domain image courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress

Stereograph image of the Battle of Gettysburg - Engagement in the Peach Orchard

Public domain image courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress

This commentary originally appeared on War Room on March 1, 2024.

History cannot be relived or rerun as one might conduct laboratory experiments in the physical sciences. However, we can use history to help us understand what happened (and why) as a starting point for considering what might have occurred if things had turned out differently. Known as counterfactual historical analysis or alternative history, this approach allows us to use our imaginations to create laboratories of the mind, testing inputs to seek alternative results.

Considering historical scenarios that are counter to the facts—how things “might have been”—is a natural human tendency. From entertainment films like It's a Wonderful Life and Back to the Future to more serious contemplations of the nature of reality like Philip K. Dick's novella The Man in the High Castle and Amazon Prime Video's streaming adaptation of the book, counterfactuals allow us to contemplate things, not merely as they are, but how they might have been different with a tweak here and there in the timeline.

But beyond its entertainment value, counterfactual analysis has practical benefits when considering national security and defense matters for decisionmakers to plan for what is to come. Above all, they can be useful in putting policymakers and planners into the shoes of those who have gone before them, facing them with the same kinds of time-space dilemmas, resource limitations, and political constraints faced by the real historical actors. Standard history can often devolve into a form of determinism, enumerating a list of reasons why the historical event had to turn out the way it did. Indeed, so prevalent is this problem in historical writing that professional historians have coined the neologism “over-determined,” for cases in which the author leads the reader in a teleological fashion to the inevitability of the actual historical outcome.

Counterfactual analysis shatters the envelope of “over-determination” by making (often subtle) changes in the historical situation, either providing something that was missing or taking away something that was present. When done carefully and thoughtfully, the change can help bring the deeper reality of the situation into sharper focus. An earlier start to an operation or different weather or a particular weapon system arriving a decade or a generation sooner than it actually did allows participants in an exercise to develop deeper insights into the planning process (in the case of an operation's start time), the vagaries of chance on the battlefield (the weather), or the nature and importance of technology and innovation (in the case of a new weapon system). Counterfactuals let the true nature of historical contingency shine forth—in which small events can combine, “snowball,” and eventually develop into mighty outcomes.

Alternative pasts can offer present-day participants a way to think differently and more deeply about present and future problems.

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While historians are interested in the past, policymakers have a different charge: they are trying to analyze the present to gain as much insight as possible into the elusive future. As historian Niall Ferguson sees it, conclusions about the future “are usually based on weighing up the potential consequences of alternative courses of action,” so it is useful “to compare the actual outcomes of what we did in the past with the conceivable outcomes of what we might have done.” In such laboratories of counterfactual analysis, alternative pasts can offer present-day participants a way to think differently and more deeply about present and future problems, the complex factors that go into shaping a given problem, and the myriad ways thoughtful individuals can approach and solve them.

The Utility of Wargames

In a similar way to using counterfactuals, military organizations plan to fight future battles by relying on war games or simulations that consider possible outcomes on the battlefield before they occur. These wargames have historically provided valuable observations and insights for military organizations preparing for battle. Nineteenth-century Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army, General Helmuth von Moltke, used wargaming to motivate critical thinking about upcoming battles during the Franco-Prussian War that led to Prussia's victories in the Wars of German Unification.

Other examples illustrate the creative thinking that wargames can elicit. As depicted in the movie The Longest Day, just before D-Day in 1944, German corps commander General Erich Marcks is involved in a wargame in France to predict when and where the invasion will occur. He imagines an alternative future relative to how his fellow senior officers were thinking, avoiding the simple and obvious. As a result, General Marcks successfully anticipated the Allies' intentions for landing locations along the Normandy coast.

Combining Historical Counterfactual Analysis with Battlefield Staff Rides

The aim of using a combination of counterfactual analysis with a battlefield staff ride is first to understand what happened in the battle and then to explore alternatives during the conduct of that battle that are distinct from what occurred in reality. Integrating alternative counterfactual mechanisms that were not present facilitates players' thinking about the implications of these counterfactual devices. Just as with historical actors and present decisionmakers, a custom-made wargame with counterfactual levers forces players to approach past battles in a way distinct from how they occurred, permitting participants to think differently about current and future problems.

The purpose of the staff ride (PDF) (either virtual or in the field) is to help participants understand what happened in the battle. The wargame component enables players to employ counterfactual alternatives to explore how they might have affected the historical battle. The overall aim of combining a staff ride and counterfactual wargame is to create a laboratory of learning by using otherwise thinking about a given battle and applying that otherwise thinking to creative and innovative approaches to current and future problems. Hence this combination produces a futures program based on history and historical counterfactual analysis.

A Battlefield Futures Program

RAND Arroyo Center's Battlefield Futures Program does just that.

We carried out a futures program using the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. On the first day of the Futures Program, we conducted a traditional staff ride of the battle. During the staff ride portion of the program, specific themes and events from the battle were highlighted with the idea that this would inform the players thinking when they refought the battle the following day using the custom-made wargame. The game allowed players to refight the battle with technologies that were available at the time but not used at Gettysburg in 1863—balloons for aerial observation, field telegraphs for commanders down to corps level for command and control, and increased firepower through repeating rifles and Gatling guns.

The player teams used their technologies differently to accomplish their missions. In one game, the Confederates started the game by making information advantage their overall operational goal and built their plan around it. They kept one of their balloons hidden so as not to give away their positions and maneuvered out of the observation range of the Union balloons. In that game, the Union built their plan around their observation capabilities—“fighting for information.” They used their cavalry to try to deny situational awareness to the Confederates.

The past and the counterfactual levers applied to it to change the outcome of a battle are purposeful ways to cause the participants to think through current and future problems.

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The two sides explored the same technologies but came up with different approaches for their use based on their different operational situations. Combining historical counterfactual analysis with a traditional battlefield staff ride can be used to gain insights about the adoption of technologies, the cost-benefits of modernization, and the impacts that different approaches and choices have on the battlefield. Combining counterfactual analysis and staff rides in this way exposes participants to the interactions of these issues within a given operational environment from the past. However, the past and the counterfactual levers applied to it to change the outcome of a battle are purposeful ways to cause the participants to think through current and future problems.

For example, today's military may face hard choices about prioritizing certain weapons or communications technologies over others. Or they may be facing hard decisions about what types of surveillance systems to invest in. Organizational change may also be something that a current military is considering. But thinking through these problems of the present often comes with personal, leadership, or organizational biases. The program described above can provide an atmosphere for fresh thinking about current issues by using counterfactual history to enable otherwise thinking about the present and future.

Possibilities for Other Counterfactual Analyses with Battlefield Staff Rides

Using counterfactual analysis in the way described in this essay is battle-agnostic. Or in other words, for example, it could use the World War II Normandy Campaign (PDF) to question what might have occurred if Allied air power had not debilitated the Luftwaffe in the lead-up to D-Day, leaving open the question of air superiority over the beaches, drop zones, and English Channel during Operation OVERLORD. Another program might use the Korean War (PDF) and the Inchon Landings to analyze how the use of alternative airpower technologies by the United States, Chinese, or North Koreans might have affected the Allied operational objective of reaching the Yalu River, unifying all of Korea under South Korean writ, and confronting the Chinese intervention into the war in October 1950. A more current battle could also be used as the premise for a futures program, such as the initial months of Russia's invasion of Ukraine from February to March 2022.

The Futures Program's main purpose is to harness history to create thought laboratories. It can be adapted to a wide range of historical battles in the different domains of land, sea, or air, depending on the interests of the participants. History is not predetermined, just as the future is not. Counterfactual analysis in the Battlefield Futures Program offers a way to better understand both.

D. Sean Barnett is an adjunct engineer at RAND. Robert Citino is senior historian emeritus at the National World War II Museum. Yvonne K. Crane is a communications analyst at RAND. Gian Gentile is associate director of the RAND Arroyo Center and a senior historian at RAND. Adam Givens is an associate policy researcher at RAND.

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